Why the Brexit issue won’t simply go away

Richard Corbett
© European Parliament

Some seem to believe that Labour should now “move on” and ignore Brexit, hoping it won’t be an issue anymore. They are wrong, for three reasons.

1. Boris Johnson’s deal is incomplete.

The trade and cooperation agreement signed with the EU in December postponed the solving of several key issues until later, and provided for others to be revisited. The following examples are just some among many – and they are all political hot potatoes.

For the 80% of the UK economy that is services, almost nothing is settled. In the following months, the unresolved issue of access for British financial services to the EU market will come to a head.  At stake are thousands of jobs and billions of pounds, including substantial tax revenue for the exchequer.

Data adequacy is still an open issue, due to be addressed within six months. The agreement leaves it to the EU to unilaterally decide whether the data of its citizens can continue to be stored and processed on UK-based servers.

Also still to be addressed are whether the UK links its own emissions trading scheme to the EU’s (a crucial part of implementing the Paris climate change agreement), how the MHRA will work with the European Medicines Agency (vital for medical supplies), conformity assessments (whether UK-based testing labs can continue to certify that UK produced products meet EU requirements), the frequency of border inspections on food products, mutual recognition of professional qualifications (crucial for the temporary movement of services suppliers), how much extra the UK will contribute to the EU budget (given that it wants to continue to participate in the EU’s research programmes), and a wide variety of other issues.

Britain has deferred carrying out import checks for six months, so all the issues of lorry queues and delays will resurface in the other direction – especially as the UK has not recruited and trained enough customs agents yet. Similarly, the first half of 2021 will see the expiry of many of the derogations and waivers currently in place to facilitate trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is likely to exacerbate difficulties for the UK’s new internal trade border and trigger major political rows.

The governance of the agreement requires the setting up of a host of new bodies. The most important is the ‘partnership council’, co-chaired by a UK minister and a European commissioner, which will run the show and even has the power to supplement or amend the agreement – without parliamentary approval! It will face a stream of issues: under it will be no fewer than 19 specialised committees (covering issues such as energy, environment, data, trade, competition, subsidies, etc), which can suggest changes, or exercise powers delegated by the council.

All of this is supposed to be monitored by a ‘parliamentary partnership assembly’, composed of MPs/Lords and MEPs – but how this will work remains to be settled, including who will sit on it for the UK (will they be elected by parliament, or appointed by the government?). Ditto for the proposed ‘civil society forum’ where there are fears it will be packed with Tory donors: the TUC is already gearing up to ensure that trade unions are represented to give voice to those whose jobs will depend on the decisions taken by these bodies.

The agreement contains numerous review clauses and dispute settlement processes that could lead to parts of the deal being suspended. If Britain diverges from EU standards on the environment, workers’ rights, consumer protection or unfair subsidies for firms, then these mechanisms will be triggered and could result in the re-imposition of tariffs. Regular disputes are likely: leaks show that the government is already planning to scrap the working time directive. They will be major political controversies that Labour cannot ignore.

Last but not least, the deal as a whole is up for review in five years’ time – not long after the next election.

2. Johnson’s deal will harm many people.

From fish and meat exporters to touring musicians and artists, from supermarkets supplying Northern Ireland to lorry drivers in queues in Kent, from Brits who retired abroad to European spouses of Brits in Britain, those facing what the government calls “teething” problems of Brexit will find out that they are, in fact, here to stay. Livelihoods are being lost, tax revenue is taking a hit and a host of smaller practical problems – from the end of pet passports to the reintroduction of roaming charges – will cause numerous irritations.

The free trade of goods provisions apply only to goods that are actually British, not those imported to re-export. This requires onerous and bureaucratic rules of origin checks. The rule anyway signals the death of UK trading hubs where we used to be the distribution centre for the whole of Europe.

The new VAT rules, where the UK now requires continental suppliers to pay in advance just to register with the Treasury, has prompted some smaller EU businesses to choose not to bother with the UK market, leading to shortages, not just of the odd supermarket item, but of key spare parts for machine tools and vehicles. There is a clamour to simplify.

The reduced access for our police and the UK border force to the police databases on criminal records, abducted children and terrorist suspects will inevitably lead to cases where criminals enter Britain (or get away) when they would not have previously. Far from taking control of our borders, we have weakened our control of them. And we will no longer be able to use the European arrest warrant. At some point, public opinion will be rightly enraged when a particularly horrific example arises.

The government’s gratuitous refusal to continue to be part of the Erasmus student exchange scheme is already seeing student- and university-led campaigns to rejoin, as several other non-EU countries do.

And then there are those others we have shafted in the process. Take the Falklands, for example.  Their economy depends in no small part on selling fish to the EU, mostly Spain. The government – the Tory heirs to Margaret Thatcher – made no arrangement to enable them to continue to have tariff free access to the EU market. Expect them to get some public sympathy when they protest.

Those affected by all of the above are unlikely to keep quiet. They will demand repair work on the agreement or rectifying measures. Some of that is possible without rejoining the EU.

3. Labour members and voters will not let it rest.

Many Labour members continue to feel very strongly about Brexit and will continue to argue to attenuate the damage in as many specific areas as possible. The Labour Movement for Europe, Labour for a European Future, Labour for a Socialist Europe, Another Europe is Possible and other smaller pro-European groups in the party are seeing their membership grow.

The same is true beyond the party, where organisations such as the European Movement are seeing a surge in membership. They believe that Brexit was a national error, and that the very least we should do is repair some of the damage.

Any failure by the Labour leadership to take up these issues will severely disappoint a large number of members, at a time when party unity is vital. And it would anyway be a strategic blunder for Labour to keep quiet. As the consequences of Brexit visibly affect people’s lives, there will be plenty of attack lines available for Labour on Conservative incompetence, malevolence and broken promises.

Some are wary of doing such attack lines, fearing that it might upset some of the minority of Labour voters who supported Brexit. That is a miscalculation. In 2019, Labour lost more of its previous voters to the smaller ‘Remain’ parties than it did to the Tories. Of those ‘Leave’ votes that were lost by Labour, it was mostly for other reasons. And many of those who supported Brexit will not be enamoured with Johnson’s deal.

At the next general election, the bulk of the electorate will not be voting in function of their views on Brexit, but the numbers of those who do will still be significant. Failing even to challenge the most acute of the government’s failures in this regard would be a serious error.

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